HIGH PRAISE FOR IMPROVING OUR NEIGHBORHOODS
Dorothy Haus and Linda Jones are among the first Des Moines households to feel the impact of Improving Our Neighborhoods (ION), the City’s new voluntary program to improve home exteriors. Over three months, the mother and daughter replaced the roof of their 840-square-foot South Side home, repaired soffits, added new gutters, and applied a fresh coat of paint. This spring, they expect to add new concrete between the garage and back door.
Dorothy and Linda were effusive about the assistance from their assigned ION team members, John Cook and Tyler Friesen. “I can’t praise them enough,” Dorothy told me. “John did all the paperwork to get us approved. And then, the two of them handled all the scheduling and contacts with the crews. And the painter did a wonderful job—just the light gray we wanted.”
When the projects are complete, 50% of the cost will be forgiven over fiver years, and the 50% balance will be a differed loan.
ION supervisor Dan Grauerhollz reports that the City’s ION team and local contractors completed 26 homes last fall in the soft rollout. Dan’s team aims to complete 150 or more home improvements this calendar year. This year, 235 residents have applied for the 2023 program. Homeowners qualify for assistance based on income.
In a 2022 survey of all Des Moines homes, the ION team identified 4,000 as in poor condition and needing significant repairs, or very poor condition and approaching a public nuisance. ION staff has notified most homeowners via informational door hangers with contact phone information in English and 11 additional languages.
ION funding includes $1 million annually from local option sales and service taxes (LOSST); $300,000 via a Community Development Block Grant; and a one-time sum of $2,900,000 from the federal COVID assistance program known as the American Rescue Plan Act. Dan anticipates the City will invest $8 to $10 million in ION projects by the end of July 2026.
MENTAL HEALTH CALLS ON THE RISE
In February, Des Moines Police Department (DMPD) 911 dispatchers checked “mental health” on 633 calls, up from 442 in January, a 43 percent increase. The February total was the largest monthly volume since July. That was when Broadlawns Medical Center’s Crisis Advocacy Response Unit (CARE) team joined the Des Moines Mobile Crisis Response Team (MCRT) to answer mental-health calls.
Since that rollout, there have been hundreds of successful outcomes for mental-health calls that now get extra attention from DMPD, Broadlawns Medical Center staff and the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. I found one example that illustrates how the program has helped to control violence and tragedy:
A woman fleeing from domestic violence was the impetus for this particular 911 call. CARE team members Jennifer and Cassondra coordinated with a local domestic violence shelter to secure a bed. They then picked-up the client's prescribed mental health medication from the pharmacy before dropping her off, safe and sound with the shelter staff.
Des Moines logs most mental health calls; 3 to 5 percent come from other Polk County communities via the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.
For a deeper dive into data since the CARE team started, see below.
CITY EXPANDS RECOMMENDED TREE SPECIES
To paraphrase poet Joyce Kilmer:
“How comely would our City be
If every street there grew a tree?”
Besides making Des Moines look invitingly green and serene, trees provide natural insulation so as to lower residents’ heating and cooling costs. Trees also increase stormwater retention, property values, and use of the outdoors. This year, the City plans to plant 3,800 trees in parks and along streets by staff or contracted to Trees Forever.
Chestnut, golden raintree, and Persian ironwood are just three species on Des Moines’ Forestry Division’s recommended trees list. City Forester Shane McQuillan told me the list has been expanded to increase the biodiversity of our urban tree population: Think fewer trees susceptible to the next tree blight or disease.
More than 90 species, which tolerate ice melt chemicals, are recommended for trees in rights-of-way or parkways. Those include dawn redwood, willow oak, and kwanzan cherry.
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Want to plant your own tree? Each year, City residents can request up to five saplings—absolutely free—from the Forestry Division to plant on private property through the Tiny Trees Program. (Deadline to request trees this year is April 28.) Since the program started in 2017, the City has given residents tens of thousands of free trees to Des Moines residents, for planting on private property.
BARK! BARK! DM TAGS
TREATED ASH TREES
In the City’s fight against emerald ash borer disease, the Des Moines Forestry Division earlier this month began tagging treated ash trees that residents have adopted in rights-of-way (parkway or parking) or in parks. The tag, which resembles a dog tag, is nailed prominently to the trunk of an ash tree that’s been injected with emamectin benzoate, which is 99.9% effective against the disease.
Urban Forestry Project Manager Dan Just told me the City has tagged 25 treated trees out of 160 adopted trees along streets and in parks. In addition, an additional 195 trees along ML King Parkway and in the East Village have been treated.
The idea is to identify treated ash trees and keep them alive. Before the ash borer invasion, in 2015, the Forestry Division inventoried about 8,600 ash trees in public spaces and parks. Dan told me that’s now been reduced to 1,212: 680 in public spaces and 532 in parks.
Last summer, two healthy ash trees were felled inadvertently by a City contractor in a neighborhood south of Park Avenue. The new tag program should alleviate similar mistakes.
Adopting an ash tree helps with the cost of treating it; typically, $10 per inch of trunk diameter. So treating a 15-inch-diameter tree runs $150 and lasts two years.
COME ON DOWN! EAST VILLAGE
LAUNCHES FIRST FRIDAY EVENTS
The Historic East Village merchants are over the moon about the April 7 launch of its First Friday events. Locally owned shops, restaurants and bars will remain open until 9 pm for five upcoming months.
To support of brick-and-mortar retail businesses, the City of Des Moines will provide free on-street parking in the core retail area.
Jay Chedester and Jay Sunvold bag cimmaron lettuce heads that staff delivers to local customers. It takes just six weeks from seed to table.
CISS GREENHOUSE PRODUCING
1,200 HEADS OF LETTUCE WEEKLY
Aaron Thormodsen, CISS urban farm manager
Aaron Thormodsen, CISS urban farm manager for the hydroponics operation, tells me the 3,600-square-foot greenhouse produces 1,200 heads of fresh lettuce a week for the Iowa Food Cooperative and Farm Table Delivery, as well as the Big Grove Brewery restaurant. Aaron believes his team can bump the output to 1,400 heads per week.
Besides lettuce, the greenhouse grows jobs: 10 employees work in the 8- to 12-week job program. The $8 per hour supplements veterans’ and other benefits.
On a recent trip to the greenhouse, at 1420 Mulberry Street, I noticed two CISS residents pushing tiny seeds into growing medium, then stacking seed trays under grow lights. Just a few steps away, four employees scurried about, tending to the thriving lettuce, okra, tomentose, and herbs.
By summer, Aaron, a California transplant, expects to expand the employment base to 20 to assist with outdoor raised beds and a new fish culture. Four 15,000-gallon fish tanks will flip the hydroponic operation into an aquaponics greenhouse, with fish waste fertilizing the plants. CISS will market the locally grown fish to area restaurants.
CISS executive director Melissa O’Neil sees a huge upside to the CISS Agri-hood she envisions. “This operation aligns with the City’s strategies for innovative homeless solutions and more reliance on local food sources,” she told me. She also noted she’s turned down $1.8 million in contracts from big local producer users. “They get it,” she says. “There would be an immediate market if we could fund the aquaponics expansion.”
Melissa and City staff have greenlit the concept of floating raised-bed community gardens on four city retention basins, as well as a fifth floating operation on CISS property. Imagine vegetables and flowers growing on a 9,600-square-foot platform of raised beds, fed via drip irrigation. It’s a flood-proof operation that would float when the little-used retention basins fill with water.
The concept has won a $300,000 USDA innovation grant. Melissa has set her sights on the first floating operation in 2024. More details.
TRAIL, PARK FACILITY USAGE CLIMBED IN 2022
Once again, the Kruidenier Trail at Gray’s Lake Park logged the highest number of trail visitors in 2022, with 796,226 uses. The Principal Riverwalk Hub Spot counter reported the second-highest number, with 327,653 annual uses.
The Parks & Recreation Department uses 14 trail counters to track usage along Des Moines trails. Nine EcoCounters were added in 2022, thanks in part to the commemorative plaque donation program on three popular bridges.
The data also reported that City residents were taking advantage of our many other recreational amenities:
Shelter and facility rentals rose 10 percent in 2022 to 1,708 from 1,443 in 2021
Volunteer hours increased 35 percent, from 21,307 hours logged in 2021 to 28,816 in 2022
Almost 10 percent more folks took advantage of learn-to-swim lessons at one of the City’s five pools/aquatic centers in 2022: 3,546, up from 3,268 in 2021
And 124 native Iowa trees and shrubs were planted at Gray’s Lake Park in 2022, the park’s largest single shrub planting since it opened in 2001. In addition, 10-plus new species were introduced to bolster biodiversity.
LIGHT IT UP! WILD LIGHTS
RETURNS TO BLANK PARK ZOO
The Blank Park Zoo has some new animals to show off, and not one is behind a fence.
Last week, Shuying Zhang, above, and her crew of eight wrapped up the installation of this year’s Wild Lights Festival presented by MidAmerican Energy. The exhibit, which features 50 illuminated animal-shaped major pieces, opens to the public on Saturday, April 1, and continues Wednesdays–Sundays through May 29. Chinese engineers, artists, and electricians designed pieces for this show in the style of the impressive array at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
Twenty-five U.S. cities will promote the Tianyu Arts & Culture exhibits this year. But Shuying ranks Des Moines as the “most happy city” she has visited since joining the Tianyu organization.
The Des Moines show arrived in early March on 13 semi-trailer loads from three U.S. warehouses. Shuying’s team invested more than 1,000 hours setting up the colorful illuminated pieces, including:
a 23-foot-tall giant panda along with nine additional pandas;
a 75-foot-long tunnel, teeming with brilliant sunflowers and bees;
a massive 3-foot-diameter drum that controls the colors and intensity of nearby light columns, responding to strikes from a drum (guaranteed kid magnet); and
a collection of eight swimming sea turtles and giant, friendly praying mantises.
Ryan Bickel, the zoo’s chief market officer, told me that to avoid overcrowding, the zoo will limit nightly attendance to 2,500. He also offered these photo tips:
Walk the display during “golden hour,” just before sunset, which casts an appealing golden hue to photos. For an entirely different intense hue, walk the exhibit again after sunset.
Switch off electronic flash, even if you include your group in the foreground. “Smartphone cameras do an amazing job with these exhibits,” Ryan says.
Walking the display after a rain or in a light shower can improve photos—the puddles reflect fantastic light.
Videos of 30 seconds or less are easier to share via text or Instagram.
The zoo walkways include several lighted “angel wings” set up especially for posing children and adults.
GROUND CREW PREPS FOR I-CUBS OPENER FRIDAY
Can you believe it? We haven’t even wrapped up March Madness, and it’s already time to head to Principal Park for baseball. (And oh, those loaded bratwursts!)
Iowa Cubs field operations director Chris Schlosser, above, promises the diamond will be ready for the team’s home opener Friday night against the Columbus Clippers, the Triple-A affiliate of the Cleveland Guardians. Unlike a typical front yard, warming tarps and sand beneath the turf avert frozen ground issues.
When I visited the ballpark recently, Chris, who is entering his 24th season with the Iowa Cubs, told me he and I-Cubs president Sam Bernabe glue their eyeballs firmly to four weather radar reports to stay ahead of Iowa’s up-and-down conditions.
“When they all have the same forecast,” says Chris, while supervising a crew of three full-time employees preparing the infield for a top dressing of calcined clay, “I’m worried. Something must be wrong!”
Calcined clay is the official prescribed infield dressing of Major League Baseball. Chris told me it provides the reliable surface for a “true baseball bounce.”
The I-Cubs’ 75-game home season runs through September 17. Ticket prices range from $7 to $40, with discounts for children ages 13 and under.
A NASTY SPRING FOR POTHOLES
Oh, the glory of spring also signals the return of pothole season.
Public Works Director Jonathan Gano expected this year’s pothole season to be worse than normal, and the number of pothole validates his prediction.
As of late last week, 1,249 potholes were reported via the myDSMmobile app.
City crews usually respond to reports (as in fill the pothole) within 24 to 48 hours.
There’s no award for the top pothole reporter, but congratulations to Albert Daniel, who logged 117 pothole tickets as of late last week. Rick W is second with 51 new tickets. According to Jonathan, most other residents report fewer than 10 potholes.
MEDIACOM ROLLS OUT AFFORDABLE INTERNET PLAN
Mediacom has enabled area income-restricted households to qualify for reduced-rate internet service through the new federal Affordable Connectivity Program. Katie Reeder, a Mediacom public relations coordinator, told me that through February, more than 3,000 households in Polk County connected to the service through the credit, which reduces or zeroes out the monthly service cost.
Eligible households can qualify for an income-restricted monthly credit of up to $30. The company offers 100 Mbps service and provides free installation, lease-free modems, no deposit, and a long-term contract.
Qualifying households include those receiving government assistance programs, including SNAP, Medicaid, federal housing assistance, SSI, or WIC.
The Merle Hay Neighborhood Association wrapped up its annual food drive this month. The group made cash and canned goods donations to DMARC, Food Bank of Iowa, Reach Church Food Pantry, Grace Lutheran Church Little Free Pantry, and Immanuel United Methodist Church Little Free Pantry.
The Lower Beaver Neighborhood Association will host a Community Easter Egg Hunt at 9 am on April 1 at Woodlawn Park.
And another egg hunt! The Union Park Neighborhood Association will host an Easter Egg Hunt at 10 am on April 8 at Union Park.
The Merle Hay Neighborhood Association will again partner with Des Moines Public Works to host the annual Spring Clean Up to Reduce Urban Blight (SCRUB) from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, April 15 in the parking lot behind the ramp on the north side of Merle Hay Mall.
Three additional Mega SCRUB days are planned in other parts of the City. More details on dates, locations and accepted items.
Thanks again to Ira Lacher for his keen copy-editing additions to this newsletter. 😄